The lesson from tonight’s astonishing results: campaigns matter


POLITICAL scientists are often sniffy about campaigns. They think that campaigns have at best a minimal impact on election results and sometimes have none whatsoever. Alan Abramowitz, an American political scientist, expressed his discipline’s received wisdom with reference to his country’s elections in an article in the Washington Post:

When you’re in the middle of a campaign there’s a tendency for people, especially in the media, to overestimate the importance of certain events. These include high-profile gaffes, vice-presidential selections, controversial ads and other moments that capture so much attention…Those things have no measurable impact. The media are interested in getting people’s attention, but a lot of stories you read or see are focusing on things that are trivial. The way campaigns play out is largely determined by fundamentals.

We can now pronounce with absolute confidence, on the basis of Britain’s general election, that political scientists are talking tosh. Election campaigns matter an enormous amount. When Theresa May called this election on 18th April the Conservatives were 20 points ahead of Labour. In local elections on May 4th the Tories beat Labour by an average of ten points and advanced deep into Labour territory by winning the mayorship of the West Midlands. Then came the campaign.

Theresa May ran what was perhaps the worst campaign in recent political history—robotic, cliché-ridden, condescending, slapdash and otherwise awful. By contrast Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn ran an inspired campaign. He started off with the huge advantage that expectations were so low; if he didn’t devour a baby on the screen people were pleasantly surprised. But as the election proceeded he turned into an impressive campaigner. He dealt with hostile interviewers with a zen-like calm. He explained his beliefs patiently. Mrs May’s rallies were abysmal affairs. She frequently imported party apparatchiks to pretend to be real people. Mr Corbyn’s rallies by contrast were thrilling—huge crowds of the party faithful flocked to see their leader.

Mrs May’s team made four unforgiveable mistakes. First, they allowed expectations to get out of control. Shortly after Mrs May declared the election Tory journalists debated whether the Tories would have a majority of 100 or 150 or even more. This hubris extended to Mrs May’s inner-team. Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s co-chief of staff, crafted an election strategy based on winning votes in the Labour heartland.

Second, they made the entire election about Theresa May. The aim was to turn the election into a referendum between two people and their ability to negotiate Brexit: “strong and stable” Mrs May and wild and woolly Mr Corbyn. Mrs May’s campaign team all but abolished the Tory party. Posters referred to “Theresa’s team” and cabinet members were sidelined (indeed Philip Hammond, the chancellor, disappeared entirely). But having made the entire election about herself Mrs May failed to deliver. She performed dismally when pressed by clever interviewers such as Andrew Neil. She refused to turn up for a leader’s debate.

Third, they turned on their most faithful supporters. The disintegration of the campaign can be dated from the publication of the manifesto and the discovery of a “dementia tax” in the section on care for the elderly. Mrs May included a suggestion that older people with expensive houses should pay more for their care at home. This might be regarded as admirably brave. But she failed to put a cap on the amount of money they would be expected to pay. This meant that people who were unlucky enough to suffer from dementia might face gigantic bills. And then she retreated from her suggestion while loudly proclaiming that she was advancing. When it turned out that Mr Timothy had inserted the dementia tax into the manifesto at the last moment without consulting anyone, even loyal Tories began to worry about her leadership style.

Fourth, they treated voters with contempt. There were robotic slogans, “strong and stable” being the worst offender. There were cardboard photo-ops. There were tedious speeches. Sir Lynton Crosby, Mrs May’s campaign manager, has long believed in endless repetition and hyper-control—if you keep repeating the same slogan over and over again the electors may have just about registered it by the time they go to the polls. That style of politics died on June 8th and Sir Lynton’s career as the Tory’s go-to advisor died with it.

Mrs May called the election in order to “guarantee certainty and security for years to come”. By running such an astonishingly dismal campaign she has guaranteed the opposite if not for years then at least for months to come.

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